Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina says that although he knew he was gay by age 5, he was too frightened to have gay sex until he was 35, or even say the word gay until four years later. It took Wainaina, 43, eight months of internal debate before deciding to come out this week. Having done so, however, he has wasted no time taking on anti-gay forces in Africa.
His offensive -- a series of monologues released on YouTube yesterday -- is well-timed. Africa has never been an easy place to be gay; homosexuality is already illegal in most of the continent. But the climate is worsening. Nigeria last month enacted a new law that, among other things, criminalizes supporting gay groups. Efforts to pass similarly draconian measures are under way in Uganda and Liberia.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last week declined to sign a bill that would make homosexual acts punishable by life in prison. He cited a lack of a parliamentary quorum; his real motivation, almost surely, was a fear of losing Western aid, on which Uganda depends. Yet foreign support for gay rights is also part of the problem: It feeds the argument made by African gay bashers that homosexuality is alien to Africa, an unsavory import from the West.
This is what makes Wainaina's coming out and advocating for gay rights, a rare act for a prominent African outside of South Africa, so powerful. Western governments, human-rights groups and gay-rights organizations have decried the new laws. Even in the best case, however, they can have only a fraction of the impact of native sons such as Wainaina.
Although he spent much of his adulthood in the West, the author of the satirical essay "How to Write about Africa," which lampoons Western depictions of the continent, cannot be dismissed as a defector. In his YouTube monologues, he says he has returned to Africa "to stay."
In the videos, he addresses the argument that homosexuality is un-African, a case commonly made not just by political and religious leaders but also by all sorts of Africans, including physicians in the AIDS field, some of whom have been known to say there are no homosexuals in their countries. Imitating the makers of this claim, Wainaina says, "Africans have never done homosexuality. We have done a survey. It is not in our cultural value." He laughs at the idea, saying, "You have to appreciate with a sense of humor when genuine stupidity hits you."
He adds, addressing the claimants, "Like you know, eh? What a grown adult over 18 would be doing in his bedroom? And like you can eradicate it?" He concludes, "The thing is, we are just here. We are not going away; I'm here. So you deal."
The challenge marks a long journey for a man too timid to have gay sex until eight years ago. Binyavanga Wainaina is making up for lost time. He may help Africa do the same.
(Lisa Beyer is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)